“Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations.” Fanny Price, the controversial heroine of Austen’s third novel, Mansfield Park, is introduced to readers in the novel’s second chapter.
Polarized Views on Mansfield Park
Since its publication in 1814, Austen’s third novel, Mansfield Park, has sparked debate and split audiences. Some readers consider Mansfield Park their absolute favorite Austen title. The 20th-century literary critic Logan Pearsall Smith had such a strong preference for it that he described himself as a “Mansfield Parker”. Others, however, just as vehemently name Mansfield Park as their least favorite of the six major novels.
One might say that Austen’s readers have loved it and hated it by turns. But it may be more accurate to say that they’ve loved and hated the novel’s unusual heroine, Fanny Price.
Fanny Price is controversial in part because she seems the polar opposite of Pride and Prejudice’s witty, confident, and satirical Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth has quickness, verve, and a disregard for harmful authority. By contrast, Fanny is slow, quiet, and obedient—most of the time. But Fanny is also like Elizabeth in being very intelligent—certainly more than others around her.
Where Fanny is concerned, as a reader one may be asked to choose a side. If one appreciates the character of Fanny, then it’s probably because they admire her unassuming strength and delicate modesty. If one dislikes her, it’s probably because they find her mousy.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Opinions on Mansfield Park
Austen probably wouldn’t be surprised at any controversy about liking Fanny Price. She knew Mansfield Park’s heroine divided her earliest readers. There were no published reviews of Mansfield Park, so Austen had little sense of what critics thought of it. But she did keep a record of how readers in her own circle responded. A document survives, in her handwriting, with a set of opinions on Mansfield Park. It records the reactions of her family and friends, most of whom had also read her first two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Austen had apparently invited some of these readers to be honest with her about their reactions. A few were brutally honest.
Here are a few of the opinions she collected on Mansfield Park: “Mr. Egerton the Publisher.—praised it for its Morality, & for being so equal a Composition.—No weak parts.” Austem’s niece, Anna, said: “Could not bear Fanny.”
Austen’s nephew Edward “admired Fanny”, but another nephew George “disliked her”. Sister-in-law, Miss Lloyd was “Delighted with Fanny.” Perhaps the most cutting remark Austen collected is this one: “My Mother—not liked it so well as P. & P.—Thought Fanny insipid.”
Two centuries later, most readers agree that Mansfield Park establishes a new tone. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and it doesn’t have many melodramatic, stormy scenes. It takes a more serious approach and unfolds at a slower, more deliberate pace.
The Title, ‘Mansfield Park’
The novel’s title sets that stage. The name Mansfield Park refers not just to the ‘country house’ or ‘great house’, the mansion where the owner’s family lived and where many employees and servants worked. It refers to an entire estate—including the land, tenants, church, and parsonage.
The fictional Mansfield Park is situated in a real county, Northamptonshire, 60 miles north of London. Its largest city, Northampton, was a military outpost and a center for shoemaking in Austen’s day. Skilled tradesmen far outnumbered domestic servants there, which meant the area had a growing middle class earlier than other places. That fact provides one economic backdrop for Mansfield Park’s story.
In fact, critics have long suggested that Mansfield Park, the estate, functions almost as a character in the novel.
The Opening of Mansfield Park
The novel opens with a flashback to the moment in the past that put three sisters on very different economic paths. It begins:
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.
This first line masterfully sets the scene by introducing the novel’s key place, and its owners, the Bertrams. Notice that Sir Thomas Bertram is not described as handsome; just his house is! This detail alone makes Miss Maria Ward’s priorities perfectly clear. She’s married for comfort and consequence, attracted most to his money.
There’s no mention either of Lady Bertram loving her husband or him loving her—only of her having the good luck to “captivate” a baronet. As readers, we’re put wise to what’s going on beneath the surface. This scenario exactly enacts the imperative of marrying for money found in the first two sentences in Pride and Prejudice.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’
Mansfield Park was published in 1814. It was Jane Austen’s third novel.
The protagonist of Mansfield Park is Fanny Price. She is controversial in part because she seems the polar opposite of Pride and Prejudice’s witty, confident, and satirical Elizabeth Bennet. Fanny is described as slow, quiet, and obedient—most of the time. But Fanny is also like Elizabeth in being very intelligent.
The fictional Mansfield Park is situated in a real county, Northamptonshire, 60 miles north of London. Its largest city, Northampton, was a military outpost and a center for shoemaking in Austen’s day.